Rotary members team up with students for clean water

Connor Kenehan at the Lake Michigan shore near his home. The lake provides drinking water for many of the surrounding communities.
Photo Credit: Bob Kenehan

Growing up in an affluent suburb of Chicago near Lake Michigan, Connor Kenehan never had to worry about a lack of clean water. But when a class assignment opened his eyes to global disparities in water access, he decided to help those who do.

Kenehan founded an organization called Well Being after researching water and sanitation issues for an eighth-grade project at Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, Illinois. Four years later, he has turned the assignment into a platform to raise funds for clean water efforts. “Living in an area with great access to fresh water, we take it for granted,” he says.

Powerful allies

Early on, Kenehan realized that Rotarians could be powerful allies in the fight for safe water. “My friend and I were in Lake Forest, talking to people and asking for donations, and a Rotarian stopped by,” he recalls. “He asked if we’d want to come to a Rotary club meeting.”

The Rotary Club of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff matched funds Kenehan had already raised, and he was able to give $3,000 to a Rotary initiative in Minorca, Spain, that sends LifeStraws to villages in Africa. Each inexpensive and lightweight personal water filter can remove more than 99 percent of waterborne bacteria and parasites from up to 264 gallons of water.

Now club members are helping Kenehan direct funds to where they’re most needed. In his search for water projects, he has relied on the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group, which screens service efforts and connects donors to Rotary volunteers and projects around the world, such as freshwater wells in Guatemala and Zambia and rainwater harvesting initiatives in India and Kenya.

Eyes on the future

Most recently, Kenehan and Rotary members worked with Deer Path students on Well Being’s biggest fundraiser yet. The school’s annual walkathon in May raised money for several charities, including $2,500 for the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff club, which plans to partner with the Rotarian Action Group and Well Being to fund two well projects in Nigeria. Only 43 percent of rural Nigerians have access to improved drinking water sources, such as pipelines and protected wells.

“When Rotary entered the picture, the kids got excited because there were actual projects available for their funding,” says club president Tim Newman. “Now we’re trying to take that $2,500 and see how big we can make it.” The club has already matched the students’ donation, and corporate sponsorship from Rotarian Action Group partners could quadruple the sum.

Now, all eyes are on the future. Newman hopes to forge a multiyear collaboration with students at Deer Path, and Kenehan is also eager to see the relationship grow. “I want to keep it going,” says Kenehan, now a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, where he plans to focus on international studies. “I want to do what I can to make sure this issue doesn’t sink down to the bottom of the heap again. It’s so easy to overlook in a country with sanitary conditions as good as ours.”

This story originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of The Rotarian.